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Conservation – Melanesia’s neglected community value

Forests-papua-new-guineaTANYA ZERIGA-ALONE

An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism

PAPUA New Guinea, like other countries with a rich variety of plant and animal life, has received a lot of money for biodiversity preservation and conservation.

A notable donor is the United Nations Global Environmental Facility (GEF). When PNG ratified the Rio Convention in 1993, GEF grants totalling nearly $US35 million that leveraged $US63 million in co-financing were given to PNG for nine national projects.

These included five projects in biodiversity, three in climate change and one multi-focal project. But how much conservation has PNG achieved with such large sums of money?

Currently, there are 56 protected areas. Of these 33 are wildlife management areas established under the Fauna Protection Act while the rest are national parks, sanctuaries and memorial parks established under the National Parks Act and the Sanctuaries and Fauna Protected Area Act.

Until recently, one conservation area had also been established under the Conservation Areas Act.

These protected areas are situated on state land and were acquired between the 1970s and 1980s – none in the last two decades and all before the availability of the GEF money.

Similarly, almost all wildlife management areas were established in the 1990s using some GEF money, but none in the recent past. The Conservation Areas Act was not implemented until recently.

If conservation is about acquiring land as protected areas, then PNG has failed dismally. The protected areas occupy a tiny 2.8% of the PNG landmass.

If conservation is about protecting wildlife then this is another dismal effort. Notable wildlife sanctuaries established in the 1970s and 1980s only exist on paper.

Baiyer Wildlife Sanctuary is not on the tourist maps anymore, nor is the Wau Ecological Institute and the Moitaka Wildlife Park in Port Moresby.

If conservation was meant to be an alternate development option to environmentally destructive development, then the previous conservation projects (like the Lak Integrated Conservation and Development Project in New Ireland Province) show that conservation will never compete with extractive industries in fulfilling the people’s developmental aspirations.

If conservation was about sustainable management of resources, there is no way of measuring the impact of a sustainable management project because stories are still being told of people hunting wildlife to low numbers.

There is also evidence of large scale destructive logging practice in wildlife management areas.

Government efforts in conservation have been found wanting. The low budgets allocated to conservation year after year, the lack of new protected areas in the last two decades and the issuance of logging and mining license in conservation areas show that conservation is a low priority to the government.

What is it that we are trying to achieve with conservation in PNG, when conservation projects are obviously not achieving success? Could it be that we are measuring the wrong target? What is conservation in PNG anyway?

Conservation seems to be an alien concept in Melanesia. Activities like hunting, mating, eating – all have a designation in the local language but not preservation of nature.

Nature conservation seems to an unintended, outcome of low population, benign harvesting technology and fear of the unknown.

Intentionally looking after nature was never given much thought until the Western scientists brought the concept to PNG.

Isolated in a small hamlet in the forest, to the people the world was the forest bordered by tribal enemies on all sides. There was no way for people to appreciate that they were also global citizens contributing to global well-being.

The precautionary view of conservation was non-existent because there was no importance attached to a theory of extinction when the people were surrounded by vast forests. They were not aware that population growth and climate change was changing their landscape and their future.

The conservation ethos of conserving biodiversity because of its inherent value was non-existent. The priority of local people was on species of utilitarian value.

Furthermore, there was no observable urgency for conservation to ensure food security. Surrounded by the vast forest, the prevailing knowledge was that there is enough for now and there will still be enough for the future.

Even the posterity value of conservation is not shared by Melanesians. They expend energy to maximise harvests and so strengthen social relationships and alliances which, through reciprocity, provide support in times of need.

So if conservation is an alien concept in Papua New Guinea, do we need it?

Yes of course. Conservation is a pre-emptive measure against encroaching environmentally destructive activity for economic development that serves only a minority.

Conservation is the last hope to protect the livelihoods of more than three-quarters of Papua New Guineans who still depend on the forest and its products.

That being the case, how can we implement successful conservation projects in PNG?

The thrust of conservation should not be about nature, but about changing people’s attitudes toward nature.

Conservation in Melanesia and in PNG should be about education that makes the link between people and the consequences of their actions on their natural resources; actions that will eventually impact upon their livelihood.

At the same time, people must be given alternatives so they can minimise their dependence on the forest. Scientific knowledge is the tool that can be used to inform the sustainable management strategies.

Last, but not the least, new conservation interventions - including the money donated - must go to the local people on the ground. They must be decision makers and not mere observers – after all, it is the people who live on the land and their actions which will determine the outcome of conservation efforts. Therefore, they need to own their actions.

Some of that money must enable local level government to make its own conservation laws as well as determine appropriate penalties for offenders.

With a clear understanding of what conservation looks like in PNG, future conservation efforts can be planned so that there is a realistic target to measure success.

This will also ensure that Papua New Guinea get value for all the foreign currency pouring into conservation efforts


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Michael Dom

A new authority - great just what we need, more spending on bureaucratic bullshit and bungling.

Strengthening the Department of Environment and Conservation is what Micah should be doing.

Barbara Short

Here is the latest positive comment on the Sepik Forum..

"Minister Ben Micah is now talking about protecting water sources after his return from a Water Conference in South Korea. He has put extractive industries on notice to respect and protect the environment. "He said logging, mining, oil and gas companies would not be allowed to dump their waste into the river systems under new legislative framework currently being developed by Water PNG and Eda Ranu with coordination from IPBC." This will assist us to protect the Sepik river ecosystem from the development impacts of Frieda mine."

Other than that, the Sepiks say they have plenty of guns stored up to protect the Sepik River.

Michael Dom

Keith - do we have a volunteer?


Phil Fitzpatrick

I'm not sure I'd put much faith in achieving attitudinal change Tanya. You can offer people incentives to change as you suggest but they soon revert back to form when the incentives are removed.

As you say I think only the government can force change when it comes to conservation. But I can't think of any government anywhere that puts conservation ahead of economics.

The poor old Department of Environment and Conservation died years ago. All it does now is rubber stamp everything placed in front of it. I don't think it ever stood a chance, even in pre-independence times.

It's all very sad, especially for our great grand children.

Tanya Zeriga-Alone

Thanks Phil for that. I am one of the 200 they mention. First as a student then a staff. I left WCS (on good terms) in 2012.

WCS - great people with a heart for conservation. WCS would be the best of the NGO lot in PNG in terms of building a cohort of local scientists to carry out conservation efforts.

Would I go back to them? No. Like all other NGO's, their agenda is limited to the terms and conditions of their funding.

Real conservation efforts in PNG will start with issues outside of conservation. Building self-esteem. Instilling pride for culture and nature. Then making the link between harvest and sustainable management. Issues any conservation NGO will never get funding for.

This is the prerogative of the government and concerned citizens. But DEC has already died, killed by corruption and cronyism.

I appreciate the list by Keith. Gives me hope that any concerned and informed citizen can do something. I will share with my network if that is OK?

Thanks Barbara.

And thanks Michael Dom for your suggestion. I like it and instead of sending it to one person or organisation to critique, if readers think there is any merit in a post then share it with your network. Share it far and wide so more people can assimilate it, critique it and talk about it and let it become common knowledge. Let people understand it and let them push for change.

Barbara Short

Here is a comment from Bata Dee, a Sepik man who works for Hides.

"Reviews from the Department of Mineral Policy and Geohazard Management showed that PNG lacked comprehensive policies and regulation frameworks to control increasing mining activities within the country in the last decade resulting in considerable amount of mine pollution affecting surrounding environments where mine activities are present.

"With the deal signed between MRA and JICA last month for assistance in improving mine waste management still at it's early stages, caution should be exercised in allowing new mines to start up.

"Tailings dams, fuels and lubricants disposal, etc.. are all part of this mine waste managment that still needs improvments from the current practices and standards allowed in the mineral extraction industry in PNG.

"So with all these, we should simply say no for now to the Frieda Mine from starting up... That is until we get all these policies and regulation frameworks revised and strengthened to ensure mining activities are environmentally responsible. "

Anybody know anything about the Department of Mineral Policy and Geohazard Management?

Phil Fitzpatrick

The Wildlife Conservation Society operates in PNG, Tanya. If you preserve wildlife you must also conserve their habitat. Here's what they say about PNG. Maybe contact them?

WCS has long been pursuing the exceptional conservation potential of this young democracy and helped to establish two of PNG’s most notable national conservation organizations: the Research and Conservation Foundation of PNG (RCF) and PNG Institute for Biological Research (IBR). RCF is the country’s largest conservation organization, and IBR is its foremost conservation research and training institute.

Over the past 10 years, WCS-PNG has focused on training future conservation leaders. Many of the more than 200 graduates of WCS training now hold senior positions in local and international conservation organizations, governmental agencies, and PNG universities. They also form the core of the WCS-PNG team.

With the technical capacity and local knowledge of these indigenous scientists, WCS can now concentrate on its core mission in the country: saving wildlife and wild places.

Even if there may never be large protected areas in PNG, biodiversity conservation can still take place. WCS-PNG will achieve this by employing science to help local people solve their resource management problems. Both on land and at sea, we work with communities to establish locally managed reserves with simple management rules.

On the national level, our research helps guide wide-ranging strategies and inform policies to conserve coral reefs and other threatened species such as cassowaries, echidnas, cockatoos, cuscus, megapodes, and birds of paradise.

Michael Dom

Keith, since a lot of essays in the Prize seem to cover topics concerned with environment and governance what about COG starting a dialogue with concerned organisations to highlight the expressions of our writers?

They may wish to comment on the validity of arguments, provide feedback comments or even use the essays as part of their own campaigns.

In this way the essays go beyond the boundary of 'pure' literary writing and enter the domain of public discussion and debate, i.e., outside of PNG Attitude and the Crocodile Prize circles.

A useful suggestion. We would need a COG member to volunteer to administer and drive such a project - KJ

Barbara Short

Keith is right, Tanya. You just have to keep writing, keep pushing, keep stirring, like Corney did with OBE (outcome-based education)! Ha!

I'm doing that with the Frieda River mine. At the moment there are a number of things underway. But I'm not going to spell them out on a public forum. We aim to surprise!

Tanya Zeriga-Alone

Thanks Keith for publishing my essay and making it read much better.

Thanks all for your encouraging comments. But I am sad that my essay will remain just that, an essay. I am sure many other individuals have brilliant ideas on how things can be done better, but these get buried and never see the light of day again.

What I sincerely want to know from you esteemed readers and contributors to PNG Attitude is how can I or any one person bring about change to an existing system that does not seem to be working anymore.

It's a path well known but probably not as well worn as it should be, Tanya - KJ:

(1) Form an association with other people who share your beliefs and passion. Join an existing group or start a new group, whatever seems best to achieve the purpose.

(2) Agree a few medium term objectives. They must be practical and achievable and your approach pragmatic, not so idealistic that you build resistance.

(3) Develop an action plan to attain those objectives, including activities like developing a data base, research, publications, media, advocacy, alliances, fund raising, exhibitions etc. Ensure that each month there is something happening that progresses your cause.

(4) Recruit high profile people who support your objectives and who will talk out on your behalf.

(5) Be vocal. Consistently advocate, persuade, lobby, communicate and never, ever, give up. Persistence is crucial.

Michael Dom

Good write Tanya.

John Kaupa Kamasua

Tanya good informative article. I have been trying to assist a local conservation group in Simbu, who went into eco-tourism and they tried their best to get assistance to sustain what they were doing.

The group folded its activities because no one was willing to assist them.

Any information on the GEF and its current status would be most welcome.

Phil Fitzpatrick

A timely essay Tanya.

In many countries, Australia included, conservation and conservation legislation is used by people to defend themselves against rapacious development and exploitation like logging.

There is no reason why this shouldn't be so in PNG.

Barbara Short

Good essay, Tanya.

At the moment I'm part of the Sepik Region Development Discussion Forum on Facebook and we discuss many aspects of this topic.

But at the moment one of our topics for discussion is the worry we have about the effects of the planned Frieda River Mine which is in its feasibility study phase. The Frieda River is a tributary of the Sepik River.

The mining company plans to take out the processed ore in 4000 dwt ships which will travel up and down the Sepik River each day taking the ore out the river mouth and along the coast to Wewak.

We fear the wash from these ships will erode the river banks and the villages will lose their homes and probably have to move away from the river.

The people live on the fish from the river and sago that grows in the swamps and vegetables they grow along the river banks or on alluvial floating islands. All of this will be affected by these ships.

We also worry about what will happen if the tailings dam, which they propose to build in a young v-shaped valley with fractured rocks, should break and the Sepik River could end up like the Fly River and the fish and bird life could be killed.

The Sepik River valley includes many huge shallow lakes which could all be affected if the river was polluted by the tailings. The wild-life would all be affected.

The Sepik River is still home to the many thousands of Sepik River tribal groups many still living a traditional way of life and still practicing their traditional culture for which they are world famous.

Surely Conservation in PNG must include the Sepik River. Surely someone must feel that the Sepik River is worth protecting!

Unfortunately the people who should be doing it seem to be not doing their job. Up to now the mining company has not even contacted the sepik River people at all. They have just flown over it. I doubt if they are aware of the thousands of people who live there and rely on the river for their livelihood.

I have come to appreciate that so many of the present Sepiks, including their great man, Sir Micheal Somare, are absolutely helpless when it comes to being able to save the Sepik River from the effects of the mining company. They are like children being thrown to the wolves.

Fortunately there are some Sepiks who are trained geologists, and many who have been working at various mines in various parts of PNG, who understand a lot about mining and can understand the threats.

Hopefully these people will start a campaign of educating the river people about the threats that they face.

At the same time I am hoping that John Pasquarelli, who actually discovered the gold at the Frieda River, will be able to talk to the mining company and get them to realize what they are dealing with.

But the added problem is that a Chinese mining company, GRAM, is trying to take over the company PanAust, which is the present developer of the Frieda River mine. So this makes things even more complicated.

It would be great if some of this Conservation money could be used to preserve the great Sepik River valley for its inhabitants and for the world in general.

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